Ragtime Is Worth Its Weight (And Wait) In Gold!

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 By: John P. McCarthy Source: The Journal News

Like the E.L. Doctorow novel on which it's based, the musical "Ragtime" is a sprawling work teeming with characters symbolizing American life in the first two decades in the 20th century.

Featuring a Tony-winning book by Terence McNally and similarly lauded score by Stephen Flaherty, the show examines bigotry and economic inequality while noting the advent of celebrity culture. Much of the action takes place in New Rochelle, where Doctorow lived when he wrote the novel. 

A formidable new production by Standing Ovation Studios of Armonk has begun a long run at Westchester Braodway Theatre. The company struck gold last year with an extended run of LinManuel Miranada's "In The Heights".

Thanks to a tiresomely wordy Act One and weighty material that tempers uplift with outrage, it's a draining yet worthwhile experience. But theatergoers with stamina will be rewarded. 

"Ragtime" adopts the perspective of a well-heeled white family who discover an abandoned Afircan-AMerican baby in their New Rochelle garden. After generously taking in mother and child, the family becomes aquanited with the baby's father, pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. of Harlem, who suffers ugly acts of racism at the hands of thugish locals. 

In the other main plot-line, Latvian emigrant Tateh arrives at Ellis Island with his young daughter and struggles to survive selling shadow potraits on the street and, later, working in Massachusetts textile factory. 

Woven throughout their stories are appearances by historical public figures Harry Houdini, activist Emma Goldman, educator Booker T. Washington, industrialist Henry Ford, and chorus line girl Evelyn Nesbit, who gained notoriety in 1906 when her husband shot her lover, architect Standord White, in an incident dubbed the "crime of the century." 

Maneuvering a cast of 40, director John Fanelli and choreographer Greg Graham do well to avoid pile-ups during the big ensemble numbers. The downside is that they have a rigid, martial air. The staging of the smaller, more self-contained numbers like "Getting' Ready to Rag" and the baseball ode "What A Game!' is more dynamic. Two characters drop down acronatically from the rafters and a replica of one Ford's Model-Ts gets its own dramatic entrance. 

In the role of Sarah, Brittany Johnson elicts goosebumpswith her piercing rendition of "Your Daddy's Son." Joey Sanzaro captures Tateh's tireless optimism in pursuit of the American Dream. And FaTye is superb as Coalhouse, an artist driven to extremes by sensless hatred. 

In addition to being embodied by talented performers, these three characters leave the deepest impression because they're the most sympathetic. Setting aside the real-life characters whose function is didactic, when a show is overpopulated as "Ragtime" it's a challenge for audiences to remain engaged. 

Along with "Your Daddy's Son" and Tateh's song "Gliding," the melodic power of Flaherty's music is most evident in the seven-piece orchestra's rendering of the duets "Our Children" and "Sarah Brown Eyes." 

As for the syncopated rhyth,,s of the namesaje jazz style, maybe the company as a whole took Scott Joplin's admonition - "It is never right to Ragtime fast" - too much to heart. Then again, per America's democratic ideals, every individual deserves a fair hearing, no matter how long it takes.